1967’s The Sorcerers captured cinema’s terror torch being passed on to a new generation of fear merchants. It came out when the burgeoning independent horror scene saw works by such upstart filmmakers as George A. Romeo and Herschell Gordon Lewis sharing screen space with the latest from Vincent Price and Christopher Lee. These pictures were bloodier, sexier, and skeezier than their high-profile competition — and, being made so cheaply, many were every bit as profitable. The Sorcerers belonged to this crowd, and as part of its plan to thrill an increasingly cynical movie-going public, it sought to liven up one of the genre’s most far-fetched hooks with a psychedelic charge. While not without its stumbles, the flick accomplished what it set out to, maintaining a consistently unnerving tone and getting viewers to buy into its premise enough to fear the story’s intended parties. The Sorcerers has a keen sense of how crazy and nasty to get in pursuit of pleasing its audience, doing what it does without becoming irredeemably silly or unpleasant.
After decades of toiling away in his humble apartment, Professor Marcus Monserrat (Boris Karloff) has completed his life’s work. A medical hypnotist eeking out the most pathetic of existences, the good doctor is ready to take his trade to the next level with an apparatus of his own invention. Upon testing it out on bored lothario Mike Roscoe (Ian Ogilvy), Marcus and his wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey) are not only able to control the lad but also feel every one of his sensations. However, while the professor envisions using his machine to benefit mankind, his beloved allows this newfound power to go instantly to her head. Years of living in near-poverty have left Estelle an embittered shell of her former self, and now that she has a pawn in her thrall, she’s ready to make all her unfulfilled desires come true. But as forcing Mike to commit simple robberies quickly evolves into murder, Marcus finds it harder to counter Estelle’s influence, with each passing moment further robbing him of the chance of ever stopping her rampage.
The Sorcerers inadvertently gave us two horror figures in their twilight years. Not only would Karloff pass away two years after production ended, but so did director Michael Reeves, who died at the tragically young age of 25. He only made a few features in his short career (the best-known being 1968’s Witchfinder General), but he’s still firmly established a knack for crafting an unsettling atmosphere out of precious few resources. The Sorcerers must have proved a particular challenge, what with the tired hypnosis conceit, yet while the movie’s sailing isn’t wholly smooth, Reeves gives the premise a good deal of credibility. With equal parts conviction and whacked-out imagery, he coaxes the most skeptical among us to climb aboard and stick by to see where the story goes next. It isn’t just a matter of Marcus staring at Mike and sternly issuing orders; the hypnosis sequence sees the young man bombarded with all manner of flickering lights and crazy color patterns that swiftly turn his brain into Nickelodeon Gak. One can imagine this scene coming off as goofy in a more condescending production, but because Reeves takes the fantastic seriously enough, so do we. It also neatly ties into the professor’s own journey, achieving the impossible in a veritable broom closet after being scoffed at for ages.
Karloff excels at making Marcus a sad, highly sympathetic figure, so it falls upon Lacey to serve as the main antagonizing force of The Sorcerers. She too is a wonder to behold, selling Estelle’s scornful attitude towards the world at large and giving into the character’s evil impulses without ever feeling like she’s overacting. Estelle begins the movie as a sweet old lady and becomes a dominating persona taunting her weak-willed husband, but while Lacey’s acting is terrific and all, the arc itself feels rather rushed. Her contempt for society comes out of nowhere, and while part of the change can be chalked up to the new power and sensations she’s experiencing for the first time, that she so quickly develops a bloodlust and loses all reason is difficult to swallow. The Sorcerers also has a strange habit of taking one-scene comedic detours with all manner of eccentric characters (from a pushy deli clerk to an uppity customer Mike encounters on the job) that serve no real purpose and just plain aren’t all that funny. Still, these instances aren’t many, and Reeves ensures that we remain invested in the narrative whenever we’re away from Marcus and Estelle’s battle of wills. Ogilvy has a firm handle on his role, avoiding the temptation to skulk around like a mindless zombie and make the effort to naturally incorporate the Monserrats’ instructions into his everyday behavior.
Low-key and dingy by design, The Sorcerers fleshes out its concepts to a degree that at the very least keeps you watching until the end. The actors aren’t eye-rolling their way through the plot, tension feels genuine, and with the premise taking us to so many convincingly cruddy locales in which the unknown thrives, the line between fantasy and reality undergoes a nice blurring. A seldom-seen slice of swingin’ ’60s cinema, The Sorcerers provides an intriguingly offbeat genre diversion.
(The Sorcerers is available from the Warner Archive Collection.)